Damon Harrison now top priority in Jets' crowded free agent pool
The Jets will be one of the most interesting teams to follow over the next month. Two of the top 20 free agents come from New York’s defensive line. Their top three running backs from last year are all free agents, as well as quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Jets were a borderline playoff team in 2015, and if they play their cards right, they could be again in 2016. Here is the blueprint for the Jets to thrive not just for this season, but for years to come.
(Editor’s note: This article was updated on Feb. 29, 2016, upon news that the Jets would be placing the franchise tag on Muhammad Wilkerson.)
NT Damon Harrison
New York has spent the last few drafts building a special defensive line. While the Jets could spend their money making sure they have a balanced team, they would be better off keeping their line together as each of the players start to hit their prime. Thanks to the great defensive line New York has put together, the Jets allowed just two touchdowns on non-quarterback runs, while the NFL average was 10. In order to keep things the same as last year, they need to not only keep Muhammad Wilkerson (89.2), who they franchise tagged, but also re-sign Damon Harrison (91.9).
Harrison was our highest-graded interior defensive linemen against the run in 2015. On 18.1 percent of his plays against the run, he made a stop. That was the best rate in the league for any defensive or nose tackle in the nine years we’ve been collecting run-stop data. Even though he is only on the field for half of the Jets’ defensive snaps, no one is better at doing what he does.
RB Chris Ivory
New York has 20 unrestricted free agents, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see them re-sign more than two. Their cap situation won’t let them add too many big contracts, but if they can afford to splurge on one more, it should be running back Chris Ivory (81.2). He forced 47 missed tackles, fourth-most among running backs. There are a few other interesting running back options, and not many teams who need a running back, so the Jets might be able to get him at a discount.
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
If the Jets bring back both defensive linemen, they need to make sacrifices elsewhere. They will probably overpay for quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (59.6), but they shouldn’t. His yardage and touchdown totals of 3,905 and 31 look impressive, but those had more to do with the players around him and his total number of pass attempts than his ability. His NFL QB rating of 88.0 was the lowest for quarterbacks with 550 or more attempts. He was the least accurate quarterback on deep passes among those with more than 10 deep attempts, posting an accuracy percentage of 31.4 in those situations.
If Fitzpatrick is only looking for $3.0 million or less per season, then the Jets can afford to bring him back. For anything more than that, they can stick with Bryce Petty entering his second year, or bring in someone else, and likely receive equal, if not better, production. Fitzpatrick is 33, past the age that most quarterbacks decline, and it looks likes the former Harvard standout has already begun his descent.
G Willie Colon, TE Kellen Davis, and OLB Calvin Pace
Fitzpatrick isn’t the only veteran the Jets can move on from in free agency. Guard Willie Colon (44.9), tight end Kellen Davis (45.3), and outside linebacker Calvin Pace (56.5) are all over the age of 30, and the Jets have equally good—if not better and younger—players already in house.
LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson and RT Breno Giacomini
In order for the Jets to sign multiple free agents, they need to free up cap space. They already started by letting cornerback Antonio Cromartie (46.5) go, which saved $8.0 million. They can save another $13.4 million by letting both starting tackles D’Brickashaw Ferguson (37.8) and Breno Giacomini (36.3) walk freely. They ranked 60th and 68th, respectively, out of 77 qualifying offensive tackles in 2015. Ferguson’s play has been on the decline the past few years, but in 2015, he allowed 19 combined sacks and hits, and 40 total hurries—both career highs. Giacomini’s overall PFF grade has declined each of the past five years.
TE Jeff Cumberland
Tight end Jeff Cumberland (53.9) saw his role with the offensive decline as the season went on. The Jets would save $1.9 million with no dead money if he is released.
LT Donald Penn
If the Jets let Fitzpatrick go and free up a lot of cap space, they would have a little bit of room to add outside free agents. If they let both tackles go, they have one in-house replacement they like in Brent Qvale, but they would need someone for the other tackle spot. That someone could be Raiders free agent tackle Donald Penn (84.5). In 13-of-16 games in 2015, he allowed two or fewer pressures, and has consistently been an above average run-blocking tackle. Ferguson only allowed two or fewer pressures in 4-of-16 games last year, and for a third straight year, was a below-average run-blocker.
TE Ladarius Green
Regardless of the other moves the Jets make, a position of need will be tight end. Their tight ends only played 831 snaps last year, fewest in the league. Even if 2014 second-round pick Jace Amaro develops into a starter after missing all of 2015, the Jets could use two good players at the position. There are a number of directions they could go in free agency, but someone they could gamble on is San Diego’s Ladarius Green (74.3). In a part-time role over the last three years, he has been one of the most effective tight ends on a per-play basis. His 1.54 yards per route run over that span are 11th-best for tight ends with at least 500 routes run. With other tight ends, the Jets can be more sure they can get a reliable starter, but Green has the most potential to be a Pro Bowl player for several seasons.
QB Matt Morre or QB Tarvaris Jackson
The Jets should have a backup plan if Bryce Petty isn’t ready to be a starter by the start of the 2016 season. Matt Moore and Tarvaris Jackson are both players who have spent most of the last few years as backups, but when they were last starters they were average quarterbacks. The Jets only need an average quarterback to succeed with the talent they have at other positions, and this way they can get one for cheap. It also wouldn’t hurt spending a mid-round draft pick on a quarterback as well, just to increase the competition.